‘Henry IV Part I’ at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

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“What is honor?”

It’s what King Henry IV is fighting to uphold. It’s what Harry Percy, the Hotspur, is fighting to defend. It’s what Prince Henry is trying to gain. But what is it? Falstaff, the old fool with the wise observations, asks the question in the midst of battle, reflecting on the worth of a thing that costs so much and reaps no tangible reward, and invites us to do the same.

For their summer series, Shakespeare in the Meadow, The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has launched an all female production of William Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, Part I directed by Tom Delise. As Henry IV opens, the king’s reign is not going smoothly. Rebels are amassing power against him. His son, the heir to his thrown, is drinking and thieving night after night. Former allies are becoming enemies. It’s a precarious position to be in, especially for a king who’s so recently won the throne from his predecessors.

Critics describe Henry IV, Part I as a very masculine show, making the choice of an all female cast one which inspires incredulity. It has only three female characters, after all, while the rest of the roles are male, and the action is set primarily in bars and battlefields. There’s no need for doubt, however. The female cast lacks none of the vitality or intensity their roles demand, and also manage to convey a wider and subtler range of emotions than pure machismo. And for anyone who thinks that women are too emotional to play these strong, male characters, consider that Henry IV Part I shows a kingdom thrust into warfare and turmoil because some of these strong men got their feelings hurt because of the king’s social snub.

Caitlin Carbone (Hotspur) and Ann Turiano (Prince Henry). Photo by Will Kirk.
Caitlin Carbone (Hotspur) and Ann Turiano (Prince Henry). Photo by Will Kirk.

Much of the play focuses on the parallel lives of Prince Henry and the Hotspur. Both men are the same age, with power at their finger tips and bright futures, but one is risking his honor to oppose a king who’s insulted his family, and the other has abandoned honor altogether while he steals and parties his nights away.

Ann Turiano plays the wayward Prince Henry and Caitlin Carbone plays the noble Hotspur. Both actors give strong performances, portraying two men who have so much in common and yet are diametrically opposed in attitude and allegiance. Though Turiano’s Henry just wants to have fun, there are eye-opening moments where the audience and his companions are reminded that this man will be king one day and he knows it. Carbone’s Hotspur is prepared to move the heavens to avenge the wrong King Henry has done to his family, and she makes you believe it can be done. But she lets Hotspur’s cracks and faults show, revealing a foolhardy man, a victim to the machinations of others and his own hot temper.

Valerie Dowdle is never anything less than regal as King Henry. She has her moments of being conflicted and frustrated, but they never dissuade her from her course of action. It’s a strong performance, and I’m disappointed there wasn’t more for her to do in that role.

Kay-Megan Washington as Falstaff in "Henry IV, Part One." Photo by  Will Kirk.
Kay-Megan Washington as Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part One.” Photo by Will Kirk.

Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic comedic characters, is played by Kay-Megan Washington, and her portrayal is one of my favorites. Washington revels in Falstaff’s dual personality, convincingly moving between the persona of a harmless old fool and his true nature as a conman.

The rest of the cast is equally brilliant in their roles, most of them playing multiple characters, aided by a sometimes dizzying number of different costumes.

The costumes, designed by April Forrer, looked unique and cool. Different colors were used to denote which side of the building confrontation a character supported, the king’s or the Percy’s and rebels. They drew from Elizabethan designs, with tunics and breeches being replaced with hand-embellished tunic-cut shirts and leggings. I particularly liked the leather work on several of the shirts.

The fights, directed by Tegan Williams, were well-choreographed, albeit slow by necessity of preserving the props. The fight between Hotspur and Prince Henry was especially good, though, both in terms of choreography and execution.

Alicia Stanley, who plays the Earl of Worcester, was also music director. She led the music during the show, as well as led her castmates in song before the performance and during intermission.

The one consistent problem at my performance was the sound quality. There’s no amplification and the stage faces a wide, flat meadow. The actors projected exceedingly well, allowing me to hear a solid 95% of the dialogue, even when faced away from me. But every now and again, the lines were swallowed by the field, and with Shakespeare, every word is crucial.

Also, while the staging was overall well done, I found the final confrontation between Prince Henry and the Hotspur a slight letdown. Instead of seeing the conclusion of their fight, we’re distracted by the entrance of Falstaff and his fight with the Earl of Douglas. By the time that conflict is over, so is the one between Henry and Hotspur. This was especially unfortunate as Turiano and Carbone were the best and most interesting swordsmen on the stage. Falstaff’s fight is also well-choreographed and his dialogue funny, but it deprived me of the catharsis of seeing the full resolution of that rivalry.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has put on a solid, highly enjoyable production of Henry IV, Part I. You can tell everyone involved is having fun, and that enthusiasm enlivens the performances and enriches the production.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is also in the midst of a fundraising campaign. BSF is hoping to raise $60,000 by the end of the year, in order to make their summer productions free for everyone for the next two years. They’ve already half met their goal and will be accepting donations until Dec. 31, 2015. Donations can be made by visiting their website and clicking on the “Donate to the Factory” box on the homepage. The plays to be performed next summer are Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

Running Time: Approximately two and half hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

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Henry IV Part I performs its final weekend, August 21-23, 2015, at St. Mary’s Community Center – 3900 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available online and at the door.

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